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The Commons
Photo 1

Courtesy photo

The author's daughter on the soccer field.

Voices / Viewpoint

Boys behaving badly

Why we need to stand up to school-age misogyny

Diana Whitney is a freelance writer and yoga instructor. She writes with a focus on parenting, sexuality, and feminism. Her first book, Wanting It, became an indie bestseller in 2014 and won the Rubery Book Award in poetry. She’s the poetry critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, and her essays have appeared in Glamour, The Washington Post, Salon, The Boston Globe, Ms., and many other publications, including The Commons. This piece first appeared on Parent Co. (parent.com).

Originally published in The Commons issue #435 (Wednesday, November 22, 2017). This story appeared on page F1.



Editor’s note: This piece discusses women’s bodies with language that is more frank than what you usually read in these pages, and it includes a quote that might be shocking in its vulgarity. We’re resolutely keeping the language as the author wrote it. To soften and redact it would do a disservice to addressing the realities of abusive behavior against women, gender inequality, and the constellation of other difficult issues that have recently come to the fore.

In the wake of the Weinstein “revelations” and the millions of #MeToo stories shared online, the national conversation about sexual harassment is rising to a fever pitch as more powerful men are called out on their misconduct.

During this time I’ve been watching the youngest generation of males, dismayed by what I’ve seen.

Many of my friends have sons, and they are lovely lads who treat others with decency.

No, I’m talking about the boys who mouth off to girls and spit out sexual epithets to assert their power, like the kid who called my 10-year-old daughter a “little bitch” on the soccer field.

It was a hot September day, and the game was tied 1–1. My girl, who plays striker, was fierce on the attack, using her elbows like the hockey player she is.

Maybe this boy on the opposing team didn’t like facing down a girl, especially a strong one, because he hissed the gendered insult when only she could hear it.

“Little bitch” means you are weak and pathetic, a whiner and a crybaby. In our competitive travel league, where a handful of girls play on the boys’ teams, he was denigrating Carmen’s right to be there.

* * *

Much worse things have been said and done to pre-teen girls all over the world, but this was my own daughter, and my rage was piqued.

The comment itself didn’t disturb me as much as the adult response to it — or lack thereof.

Immediately, I filed an online complaint with the league Ethics Committee and asked our coaches to support my child and address the issue with the opposing team.

The head coach of my daughter’s team managed to avoid me for days, and when we finally spoke, he hemmed and hawed about the incident. It had been sweltering weather, he said, a really tough match. All the kids were getting frustrated. And perhaps Carmen had provoked the boy with her intense and aggressive playing style?

I was incredulous. Had this grown man just insinuated that my 10-year-old was “asking for” verbal abuse?

Clearly, he wanted me to be quiet and leave him in peace and not demand that he stand up for respectful conduct and good sportsmanship. Even that word “sportsmanship” — with “man” squarely at its center — irked me now. Was there no gender-neutral equivalent to uphold the ideals of athletic behavior?

What I wanted was a clear statement, from the soccer powers-that-be, that the kid’s conduct was unacceptable.

Oddly, some other mothers on the team seemed discomfited by my crusade. One observed that trash talk was more common in our new league, so this wasn’t a big deal. Others changed the subject rather than engage.

“Boys will be boys,” the implication went, and a girl who played in their territory should deal with it. It was the same sexist paradigm that women face in Hollywood, Silicon Valley, Congress, and other strongholds of masculinity.

* * *

I knew that by standing up for my daughter, I was acting like a bitch — and not a little one. Bitch Media (a nonprofit, independent, feminist media organization) proudly defines the b-word as “an epithet hurled at women who speak their minds, who have opinions and don’t shy away from expressing them, and who don’t sit by and smile uncomfortably if they’re bothered or offended.”

Yes, I was offended, and not just about a small-town soccer game. It was the practice of subtle misogyny that existed among our children and went unchallenged by adults.

At my older daughter’s elementary school, a sixth-grade boy stopped another girl in the hallway. “I want to put a fidget spinner on your pussy and lick it,” he said, leering.

Imagine this girl, age 11 or 12, her mortification at having her genitals ridiculed, on the way to P.E. The boy was tall and popular, radiating a suave maturity. He’d successfully shamed her, made her feel unsafe.

“That’s sexual harassment,” said my cousin, a high-school teacher.

I don’t know if the comment meets the legal definition, but it was definitely unwelcome, a micro-aggression that would be unacceptable in the workplace.

There were no consequences for the boy at the school. This kind of “locker-room talk” is condoned by our culture — acceptable for our president and acceptable for our boys.

* * *

I see an insidious hatred of the feminine pervading our language, our schools, our sports.

“If you boys don’t stop complaining, I’m going to go buy you a box of tampons!” yelled a high-school coach in my town. His taunt was weak, rooted in tired chauvinist fears of menstruation, but it worked to humiliate his team.

Is this why we aren’t holding our boys accountable for their actions? When we look at the big men who’ve assaulted women, we need to talk about the boys they were and the people who ignored or indulged them.

We need to set the bar higher for boys today and call them out on their behavior — not rationalize or let it slide.

* * *

Just as I was drowning in feminist fury, I got two thoughtful emails apologizing for the little bitch incident. One came from the other team’s coach, the other from the head of the Ethics Committee. Both had spoken to the whole team in question and asked parents to reinforce a message of respect and sportsmanship.

Before the next game, I walked up to the coach and introduced myself. He was a burly guy with a warm smile and laughing eyes. He hadn’t heard the insult at the time, he assured me, or he would have addressed it immediately.

The foul-mouthed kid had been suspended, after three similar incidents, the coach said, adding that the boy would be sitting out the rest of the season. I felt a surge of relief: justice had been done.

Then the coach asked if he could apologize to Carmen personally, and she ran over from the bench to join us.

Looking her in the eye, he shook her hand.

“I’m really sorry about that comment. It won’t happen again. I talk to my team every practice about respect and attitude. And I’ve seen you out there — you’re a good player. You’re dynamite. Try not to score any goals today!”

She grinned and rejoined her team. It was accountability in action.

Blinking back tears, I stood corrected. The world wasn’t shrouded in a dark cloud of sexism after all.

There were bright spots everywhere — good people who believed in equality, trying to raise kind children to do the same.

In order to create change, we need parents, teachers, and mentors to have a zero-tolerance policy for misogyny in all its forms. Maybe if boys keep facing consequences for demeaning girls, they won’t grow up to abuse women.

But we still need outspoken bitches to report the truth, wherever the shit goes down.

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